PHILADELPHIA -- The Eagles violated the first commandment of football last night:
Never give hope to the hopeless.
But the Birds let the dispirited, punching-bag Washington VTC Redskins hang around and hang around and hang around, and, sure enough, it was the Eagles who very nearly ended up getting hanged.
They promised us they were past this.
They promised the days of playing down to the level of the competition were over. They promised they were different now. They were done with letdowns following huge wins. They were changed. Mature. Wise.
But they survived, however shakily, and that is all that really matters.
For the first time in a long, long time, you have the feeling that the Eagles are a threat to score any time, from anywhere.
Last night, however, they were a threat mostly to themselves.
Against an inferior opponent, they stitched together some impressive drives. With distressing frequency, though, they neglected to always bring the ball along with them.
Still, it is pleasurable to watch the Eagles with the ball now. This used to be an exercise in numbing tedium.
But a rookie running back, Charlie Garner, has made them diversified and unpredictable, and he always seems to be one desperate ankle-grab away from breaking one. And no one seems more pepped up than Randall Cunningham.
He made a play from the archives for the first score last night, reaching back into his memory for one of those elegant, loping bootlegs that culminate in a breathtaking hurdling of one tackler and then a somersault into the end zone.
It was a play of such staggering levitation that in the next booth over, Stan Walters, the old Eagles Super Bowl tackle, howled into his radio microphone: "Randall Cunningham has just scored the winning touchdown."
Walters collected himself and corrected himself. Cunningham's balletic maneuver only made the score 7-0.
But Walters was only inadvertently saying what all the Eagles zealots had been assuring themselves of during a golden afternoon of serious tailgating libations: We win this one for fun.
So surely Cunningham's electric score was merely the first gush from the faucet.
But no, every time it looked as if the Eagles had it together, it came apart. An overthrow here, a drop there. Holding. Motion. Interception. Something.
Calvin Williams dropped a pass in the chest in the end zone. Cunningham had Garner yawningly open over the middle and threw too low and was intercepted.
And the Redskins kept exploiting a play that the Eagles defense is going to see over and over and over again this season -- the pump fake to set up the long ball.
Because the Eagles secondary bites. Every time. Like starving bass snapping at a lure.
It cost them two touchdowns last night, and you have the feeling that it will cost them a game this season. Maybe more than one. The first play in Irving, Texas, next Sunday is very likely to be Troy Aikman pump-faking and then going deep, either to Michael Irvin or to Alvin Harper.
The antidote is pressure on the passer, and it didn't seem that the Eagles sent enough people after the young and inexperienced Heath Shuler. They did come with a storm-the-beaches pass rush at the end, and Shuler did indeed throw an interception.
Nonetheless, there are two areas at the moment that prevent the Eagles from being a team without a discernible weakness, two areas that stand between them and serious contending:
1. Their secondary that bites.
2. And their kickoff coverage, which has no bite at all.
The Eagles' special-teams play already has cost them their only defeat of the season.
That was against the Giants, in the opener, and the Eagles hadn't been behind since then. Last night they trailed twice and rallied each time to regain the lead, and you like that resiliency.
But they never should have been behind in the first place.
Fortunately for them, their offense looks versatile enough, varied enough, to run on past most of their mistakes.